Reflections on Dandelions

Hope blossoms—again—as the our constructed world collapses

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”

—R.E.M. (1987)

My columns usually focus on doom and damnation. You know—end-of-the-world stuff. That’s because it is the end of the world. Or at least, as R.E.M. put it in 1987, “the end of the world as we know it.” Last week I wrote about the global food crisis. We are all painfully aware of the energy crisis and the lessons it has taught us about economic and environmental interconnectivity.

Recently China announced it is moving into a new economic phase. The new protocol calls for phasing in safe working conditions and a living wage for China’s sweatshops, and environmental safeguards to protect what’s left of China’s environment from total collapse. For Americans, this means the looming end of Wal-Marts full of cheap Chinese products and the counter-inflationary impact they’ve had on our economy. It is the end of one world as we know it. But that’s okay. It also means that, in the global race to the bottom, the bottom will be lifting, if ever so slightly.

Economist wonks are all lining up by their respective microphones to explain that this “bad news”—the onset of workers’ rights in China—means a torpedo to the Chinese-exploitation-dependent American standard of living. There will be no more 99-cent barbecue spatulas. The end of the world as we know it.

The upside, however, is that Americans might once again (but don’t hold your breath) be employed making five-dollar spatulas. And hence, with factories re-opening, Americans might be able to afford five-dollar spatulas, possibly made under protocols that protect workers and the environment. And your spatulas won’t have to go sightseeing across the globe on carbon-producing cargo ships to get to your backyard grill.

There will probably be other things that we take for granted that we won’t be able to afford, like most of last year’s plastic junk—the crap you stuffed your jumbo garbage tote with this year. Kids will have to get used to keeping their toys intact for more than a minute since there won’t be any cheap replacements available.

There will also be domestic products we might no longer be able to afford—like Glade plug-in air “fresheners,” plastic tanks of Wetnaps and Pringles, and toxic blue chemical pellets for your toilets. And that’s okay.

If the end of the world as we know it also means the end of consumerism—because we just can’t afford all that crap—then perhaps we’ll see some of the side effects of a hedonistic consumer society subside. Maybe after we learn that cell phones were killing bees, or people, as a hypothetical example, we’d spend more time talking to each other in person once again. Perhaps we’d even reach out and tactilely feel each other—in RL. Freed from the perpetual quest to consume more, maybe we’d instead live more—as in, live more fully. I mean, do you really feel as fulfilled after a trip to Circuit City as you do after making love under the moon on a warm summer night? Maybe without Blu-Ray you’ll instead look at the person sitting next to you. Without a constant barrage of ads telling you that you’re unfilled, perhaps you won’t think only of what you don’t have. Maybe the end of the world as we know it just really ain’t so bad.

I lived for a short while in a remote Mayan village “in the bush” in Central America. The occasional American that would pass through villages in our region would comment about how people had “nothing.” But at least in this village, where people all had access to land and education, they didn’t seem to be lacking much on the material plane (though I must point out that, like poor Americans, they did lack good healthcare). And there were certain culture-based American health afflictions—stress-related disorders like depression and anxiety—that seemed to be all but absent. Perhaps they weren’t brought up to think that the world was all about them—that they had to dwell constantly on how they felt or what they lacked at any given moment. They didn’t have the luxury to feel such pain. And their low-consumption lifestyle didn’t impose such pain on others.

Admittedly, the transition is going to be tough. Americans just aren’t prepared yet to live with less. But we did bring this economic and environmental emergency down upon ourselves. I mean, come on, what did you think would happen to an economy whose main product was credit, and whose material ethos was reduced to one word—more. That world had to end, and we’re witnessing its demise right now. And it ain’t so bad—because if that world ends, perhaps the little village in the bush will get to survive. Perhaps the world will survive.

What got me thinking about all of this was a long overdue weeding of my garden. It seems this protracted spring season gifted us with a bumper crop of dandelions. This included dandelions in my strawberry patch. If I wanted strawberries this year, the dandelions would have to go. So I approached the first clump of dandelions and wrapped both hands around the entire gaggle, pulling them up roots and all. To my surprise, I had a beautiful head of organic greens larger than most heads of romaine lettuce. Hmmm.

I remembered back about 10 years ago, when the Green Party of Erie County was interviewing candidates. They asked an incumbent City Council representative about a potential ban on the use of toxic agricultural pesticides within city limits (it was never enacted—we’re still exposed to environmentally persistent carcinogens and neurotoxins). He told us he supported such a ban, and that his strategy for dandelions on his own lawn was to eat them. As I looked at my harvest his words popped into my head, along with a Tom Toles cartoon exclaiming that someone should develop a seal of approval for safe, pesticide-free lawns. The final Toles panel showed a picture of a dandelion and a few words to the effect that someone has. I pulled out another clump and put them both aside. Then another one. Soon I had a bushel. A bushel that size of, say, organic spinach, would cost as much as filling my car’s small tank full of four-dollar-a-gallon gas.

It didn’t take long to find a recipe—though I did have to dive into the online media torrent and ignore ads for delicacies trucked and flown around the world. I wound up with two dishes: a dandelion green stew and an appetizer of sautéed dandelion florets. It turns out I had way too many dandelions. I cooked as many as I could fit into my biggest stockpot. And about fifty flowers. Dinner was filling. And my refrigerator is now full of more dandelion meals.

The thing is, I didn’t set out to plant or grow vegetables. I was just gathering garbage from my yard. And suddenly I had, what I’ve since discovered, a medicinal super food on my hands. Dandelions are cleansing. They protect your kidney and liver from the toxics your neighbors spray to kill dandelions. Organic greens sold here in May, on the other hand, just took a cross-country (or international) trip in a diesel burner, polluting other people’s communities on the way. I never really thought much about this stuff before the end of the world. Now I do. And I have a refrigerator full of food and, if I make a habit of this, a cleaner kidney to show for it.

Springtime means time for rebirth. Every year, it’s not just our gardens that come back to life; it’s us. The seasons punctuate our lives. We are reborn anew, slightly different, each spring. This year I’m eating my weeds. It’s only a small change. Over the winter I found out that shampoo comes in solid (nice smelling) bars—that I didn’t need to discard about a 1,000 plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles over the course of my life. As our world ends, we’re going to find ourselves changing. Eating weeds. Refilling water bottles. Riding bikes and public transportation. Eating local food. Heating less space in our homes. Not paying 150 dollars a month for cell phones and TV services. That sort of thing.

This isn’t revolutionary—it’s evolutionary. This isn’t to say we don’t need revolution. This just ain’t it. But it helps.

I’m also reminded of that old Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It’s not the little things that we do that will get us through the unfolding crisis—it’s the amount of people who are doing them. Like any movement, things start small, maybe with just a few folks ditching their gas-powered lawnmowers and letting their dandelions bloom.

It’s insane to spray highly toxic chemicals on the land where you live because you were taught that yellow flowers and gray puff balls are aesthetically inferior to uniform, thin, vertical, green leaves. A few years ago, however, you’d be ostracized for pointing this out. Communities even passed zoning laws against the healthy yellow flowers.

Today you can take a stand against such insanity by allowing your dandelions to go to seed, spreading their medicine around the neighborhood. Migrating pesticides are deadly. Migrating dandelion seeds mean fewer trucks on the road and more land to grow food for the truly hungry. Harvest some dandelions and bow out of the global food supply chain for a day. It’s an easy act of civil resistance to the agribusiness conglomerates. Tomorrow it might be an economic necessity. Yes, it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.

Dr, Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are available at Artvoice.com and archived at mediastudy.com.


ęCopyright 2008

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